Friday, October 15, 2010

The OTHER Vampire Diaries

Sometimes when it comes to the finished product you have to wonder what could have been. For video games this is doubly true, more than probably any other entertainment medium, with several titles literally forced out the door and onto store shelves before they can be polished into something worth playing. Such an occurrence can turn a game destined for great things into a buggy, error-prone program that fails to live up to it's potential. Such was the fate of Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines when it was released back in 2004 by Troika Games.

Welcome to the World of Darkness, you bad thing!
Troika was first formed in 1998 by Tim Cain, Leonard Boyarsky and Jason Anderson, three of the main game designers behind one of the most popular video games in history, the post-apocalyptic role playing game Fallout, produced by Interplay Entertainment. Splitting from Interplay in 1997 due to creative differences, the three founded Troika for the expressed purpose of creating an environment more like Interplay had been in it's early years. Troika came from a Russian word meaning "three of any kind" meant to symbolize the three co-founders. Troika's first game was 2001's Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, an RPG in the same top-down isometric variation as the popular Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale series that was unique in it's implementation of steampunk and early industrial technology on top of a classic fantasy setting (Come to think of it, there's another game I own I could go back and play...). Though reviewers had some complaints about it's clunky combat system and unpolished final state, the game was highly lauded and a financial success, making over $8 million in sales. The game released two more games in the following years, with the second game coming out in 2003. The Temple of Elemental Evil was a remake of the pen and paper Dungeons & Dragons module of the same name, which got mixed reviews. Hampered by new engine technology, the company's third game wouldn't be released until the next year.

Smiling Jack is your tour guide to the afterlife
Finally, in 2004, the company released Vampire, an RPG that could be played using either first or third-person vantage points, and was built using Valve Software's new Source Engine, the same one used to build the excellent Half Life 2. The player is thrust into the role of a newly-turned vampire in 2004 Los Angeles. Because your sire didn't get permission to introduce you to the World of Darkness, he/she is made an example of and you are taken under the wing of the Prince of Los Angeles, and leader of the local Kindred ("their" word for vampire) authority known as the Camarilla. The story of the game has you carrying out quests by "everybody with a week seniority over you" as you struggle to find a place for yourself in this new, well, "life" is the wrong word. "Unlife" might be a better one. You are also sped towards making a choice between sticking with the law-giving Camarilla, joining the anti-Camarilla movement known as the Anarchs, or a few other options. All the while you must uphold the Masquerade, the rules that hide the existence of Kindred from the knowledge of humans. As one character puts it, "We're living in the age of cell phone cameras; #&@%-ups ain't tolerated." Finally, you must keep the primal beast that now exists in your blood at bay, and keep as much of your humanity intact as possible.

Fire is NOT a vamp's best friend
If any of the above made you crinkle your brow in confusion, you're not alone. Until the game had been released, I really knew nothing about the universe of this game. The World of Darkness was created by White Wolf Inc. as pen-and paper RPG not unlike Dungeons and Dragons, but set in the modern world and with supernatural elements taking the forefront. In the game, you can become a member of any of seven vampire clans, most of which are based on classic vampire myths. The Nosferatu are disfigured monsters who must hide their appearance from the public and make for excellent spies and information gatherers. Toreadors are spinsters who can solve most anything with words and cam make people dance like puppets on a string with their persuasive abilities. The Tremere are blood mages, a secretive and powerful order who hide their magical secrets from all outsiders. Every clan has it's own strengths and weaknesses, making any playthrough with one character markedly different than with any other. You also encounter the many denizens of this new world, both Kindred and regular humans alike. Most are at least interesting, with very few bordering the "barely interesting" line. In fact, many are eccentric to say the least, and provide for interesting conversations, to say the least.

The character you encounter may be seductively attractive...
One of the best parts of the game is the story structure. Slowly, the players is given insight into the story and mechanics involved in this unfamiliar world you find yourself in. Characters tell you not only about themselves, but also about the world around them. Quests are interesting and rarely a grind, many asking to use different aspects of your character's arsenal, whether using sneaking to gather intelligence, convincing an enemy to become an ally, hacking a computer or lock-picking a door to gain entry, or just going in with guns blazing. One of my favorite missions in fact involved helping a Santa Monican Kindred leader expel a phantasm from a haunted hotel she had acquired by searching the building for a personal item of the spirit, and bringing it back. There are no enemies in the building, only the occasional howls and groans and magically-thrown furniture in an attempt to dissuade you from saving the trapped spirit. And after everything, you can still lose the mission if you give the special item to the wrong person when you get back to Santa Monica. And that's just one example of the varied quest structure. There's a lot to accomplish and limitless time to accomplish most of the missions and side-quests you'll find yourself carrying out to get more cash and experience to outfit your character into an elite specialist or a solid jack of all trades, ready to take on the undead world ahead of you.

...or disgustingly repulsive
Character interaction is pretty amazing. Everyone has something interesting to say, whether it's an optional side mission for you to take or tidbits you can save for later, but what gets your interest at first is how detailed everyone is. Every character you speak with has unique characteristics and, with the exception of blocky, poorly animated hair, flawless animation that manifests itself best in the mood of the characters. You can instantly gauge a character's temperament during a discussion with ease, and it can help put you on the right conversational track for success. Whether ugly or strangely pretty, none of the characters in this game can be accused of being visually dull.

Shootouts with local gangs are not unheard of, but often you can avoid such violent altercations
It's a shame the same thing can't be said about the environmental visuals. The game takes place in four main "hub" areas, with some travel between these hubs and several smaller areas possible based on your current mission. But these areas, despite being produced by a game engine that is STILL hailed as being technologically superior six years later, is largely drab, dull, and blocky, meaning traveling by foot from one end of a hub to another can be filled with nothing visually interesting, leading to spots of dull as you go from A to B.

Feeding in public is an option... if you WANT to get put down
Other problems with the game have nothing to do with the graphics. Combat is horribly buggy, neither wielding a gun nor a sword nor going in with just fists is easy to handle, as combat is non-intuitive and too dependant on your character's stats to be very immersive. And bad game artificial intelligence makes for frustrating moments of uncertainty when you're trying to do something painfully simple. It's also possible to get "stuck" on interactive objects, forcing you to load to an older save game (thankfully, the game automatically saves, though not at the beginning of each map). Other bugs that cause game crashes and other unfortunate situations were also rampant at the game's launch, mostly due to the game's early release in unfinished and unpolished condition. The game universe is so large that the designers literally didn't have time to go over most aspects of the game before it was due to launch.

Gargoyles are the LEAST of your problems... most of the time. He doesn't look happy
One problem not related to technical problems is the game's lack of time aspect. For your character, the world exists as an endless night, leading to believe that the events of the game take place in one night, whereas the story itself actually states that the story is taking place over several days if not weeks. We're told early on that among other things, the rays of the sun are deadly, but never are we threatened by the idea of sunrise. Strangely, this was overlooked (perhaps because of the difficulty in setting it up technically or perhaps due to suspected unpopularity in the idea of dropping what you are doing to go home and "rest" until the sun goes down again) but while it's an interesting omission, not one that hurts the pace of the gameplay overall and so can be safely ignored.

Yeah, if I was descending into a literal bloodbath, I'd want that gun too
Vampire's music fits the mood the game is trying to convey, with much of it coming from groups that typify the gothic and dark atmosphere that goes for the jugular. Bands like Darling Violetta, the Genitorturers, and Die My Darling got a lot of exposure when their music was featured on the game's soundtrack, and I first heard one of my more favored bands, Lacuna Coil, when their single Swamped made it's appearance on the closing credits. The music does a fantastic job drawing you into the type of emotion you should be feeling in a certain scene, and the crew who put the soundtrack together did a wonderful job getting that right.

You don't want to mess with werewolves
Despite all it's problems, the game garnered a lot of positive reviews. Despite that, however, it had poor initial sales, and Troika's failure to garner financial support after Vampire dropped meant that they had to close shop in early 2005, meaning Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines would be their final product. After working to release a final patch to fix some of the more egregious bugs, the game was left as is for a few years before it became available for digital distribution on the Steam network. The game started to garner a "cult" status, and several amateur programmers began to release unofficial patches to fix more bugs and restore lost content. I just finished my first playthrough on the unofficial 7.1 patch, and I have to say it was a completely different experience than I remember the last time I played (it helps I was playing a type of character, the loner Gangrel, that I was unused to) in a positive way. Many things that were unfinished or unimpressive back when the final official patch had been released were fresh and made much more sense this time around. I'm already into a new game with a newly fledged Kindred and still enjoying it. I'd say it's definitely worth the twenty dollars it would cost to purchase and load this onto your home PC. If it was built in the past five years, chances are it'll probably play, and when it's patched enough, you should have a good time immersing yourself in the World of Darkness.
The City of Angels is yours to explore

No comments: